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HudsonAlpha Brings Power of Genomics to Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON – Along with research, education is a key element of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology’s mission.

So, officials with the Huntsville-based center went on a mission to Capitol Hill last month and presented “Genomics in Agriculture 101: Exploring the Basics” in the Rayburn House Office Building. It was the third time HudsonAlpha held a “Genomics 101” session for lawmakers and their staff.

Members of Congress, their staff and House and Senate Committee staff members engaged with Jeremy Schmutz, faculty investigator and co-director of the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center; Dr. Kankshita Swaminathan, faculty investigator; and Dr. Neil Lamb, vice president for Educational Outreach, during the briefing.

The purpose for “Genomics in Agriculture 101” was to provide a forum for leaders in plant genomics to interact with the leaders who drive national policy, impacting agriculture for the United States and beyond.

“Enormous progress has been made in plant genomics in just a few short years. We have gone from generating a single reference genome for a single plant, to generating hundreds of reference plant genomes and detailed diversity of crop collections,” said Schmutz. “These advances are providing solutions to the many agricultural challenges faced by the farming community every day.

“Genomics 101 provided decision makers on national policy an opportunity to learn more about the reach and impact of genomics in agriculture.”

Some of the topics discussed at the briefing involved the power and utility of the information gained through genomics, specifically regarding improvement of crop yields; acceleration of breeding cycles; resistance to diseases and pests; reaction and resulting changes based as a result of drought or floods. Additionally, the group from HudsonAlpha stressed the importance of collaboration within the field of plant genomics.

HudsonAlpha Scientists Help Secure the Future of Chocolate with Improved Cacao Reference Genome

People around the world consumed nearly 7.7 million tons of chocolate in the last year, but the cacao crop that supports the production of these sweets is under significant environmental threat.

Millions of cacao farmers in West Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America feel the pressures of ever-increasing consumption, a changing climate and devastating fungal infections. In 2017, The New York Times said there is “a battle to save the world’s favorite treat.”

Scientists at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology with funding from Mars Wrigley Confectionery have created the newest weapon in that battle — an improved reference genome to help researchers and farmers develop healthier, more productive cacao crops.

Sweets Under Siege

The production of one of the world’s favorite delicacies relies on a particularly delicate plant. Cacao can only be grown within 20 degrees of the equator, and global studies suggest that the effects of climate change will shrink the farmland currently suitable for production even further. Increasing temperature and decreasing humidity in the areas that currently produce cacao will mean the crop must be grown at higher elevations.

Cacao also proves particularly vulnerable to fungi and diseases. It suffers from a number of menacingly named blights, including frosty pod rot, witches’ broom, black pod and cacao swollen-shoot virus. One fear is that if any of these blights spread from its native region, it could sweep through global crops, devastating worldwide production.

The Newest Weapon in the War to Save Cacao

HudsonAlpha scientists have completed and released an updated reference genome for the tree that produces cacao beans. Researchers generated this resource using advanced long-read sequencers to produce an updated reference genome than the first version, which was completed in 2010. 

A reference genome identifies parts of the genome to be carried through to the next generation of plants, such as genes that promote drought tolerance, increase yield or improve disease resistance. Then, researchers can sequence each generation of selectively bred plants to quickly find which ones carry the desirable traits.

This most recent effort was was led by HudsonAlpha faculty investigators Dr. Jane Grimwood and Jeremy Schmutz.

“As our technology improves, we’re able to produce more detailed, versatile reference genomes, which are critical for the kind of rapid crop improvement you want to see with cacao,” Schmutz said.

Farmers have used selective breeding to improve crops for centuries. The process works by crossbreeding two plants, hoping to combine desirable traits and make hardier plants. Then, the offspring with those traits are bred again. This selective breeding process takes time though, because each crop must mature. A cacao tree, for example, takes about five years to start generating fruit.

A Better “Chocolate Tree”

Cacao trees, like many modern crops, do not show much genetic diversity. Most of the cacao trees worldwide come from a handful of clones selected in the 1940s. Because the trees are so closely related, they have similar genetic weaknesses. If a disease reaches a group of cacao trees that doesn’t carry any genetic resistance to that disease, it can destroy the entire crop. 

“Having so little genetic diversity leaves the cacao tree vulnerable,” said Grimwood. “However, it also means that genes can be exchanged between trees, which gives researchers and farmers an opportunity.”

Using this new reference genome, researchers will be able to guide crossbreeding and hybridization efforts more quickly. That means traits such as drought tolerance can be bred into a population faster and disease resistances can be introduced more efficiently.

The “chocolate tree” remains under threat, but now scientists and farmers alike have a more complete tool kit to produce more robust cacao crops.

HudsonAlpha Generates $2.45B Economic Impact for Alabama, Study Shows

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology contributed a whopping $2.45 billion to Alabama’s statewide economy, according to a data analysis from the Center for Management & Economic Research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The data, taken from an analysis conducted between 2006 and 2018 said three factors had the most impact including employment, revenue and capital expenditures.

The study reflects data from more than 30 resident associate companies located on the HudsonAlpha campus through 2018, but that number has grown to more than 40 companies currently, who are leasing lab and entrepreneurial office space on campus.

The data includes the impact HudsonAlpha’s entrepreneurial bioscience ecosystem had on its expanding footprint in Cummings Research Park as those associates have expanded into multiple sectors across the biosciences including drugs, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, equipment, and research, testing and medical labs, which represent 71 percent of the economic dollar impact.

“HudsonAlpha has been instrumental in growing the business of biotech in North Alabama,” said Jim Hudson, co-founder of HudsonAlpha. “Just over ten years ago, there were only a few people and companies dedicated to working in biotech, but we have a remarkable track record of success and growth. These numbers show that the model we [Hudson and late co-founder Lonnie McMillian] created works, and we are positioned for the future.”  

HudsonAlpha co-founders Jim Hudson, left, and the late Lonnie McMillian. (Photo courtesy of HudsonAlpha).

A key to the success of HudsonAlpha is the uniqueness of its associate companies.

“Biotech companies located at HudsonAlpha have opportunities that are not available anywhere else,” said Carter Wells, vice president for economic development at HudsonAlpha. “On campus, entrepreneurs and companies of every stage and size can interact with global leaders in genomics; participate in mentoring initiatives with men and women with decades of success in science and business; and work in an environment of cooperation and encouragement where people see the benefits in everyone’s success.

“The model created by the founders is unique, but the 800 people on campus make HudsonAlpha a destination for those who want to be on the leading edge of biotech.”

According to the study, HudsonAlpha has contributed 2,063 direct and multiplier jobs to Alabama with an estimated $863 million in payroll since 2006. This exponential growth is due in part to the additional space on HudsonAlpha’s campus such as the Paul Propst Center, which opened in fall 2018. The 105,000 square-foot facility houses education and research programs, as well as several of the growing for-profit associate companies. 

“HudsonAlpha is a critical component to Alabama being in position to expand our bioscience activity,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “The positive impact of HudsonAlpha and the 40+ biotech companies to Alabama’s economy is remarkable but there is so much more that they do for our state.

“HudsonAlpha is making breakthroughs on cancer, working with Alabama farmers for better crops, diagnosing rare disease for children and educating students, teachers and the public. I can’t wait to see what’s next for HudsonAlpha.”

“This study reflects our ability to train, recruit and retain top biotech talent in Alabama and help strengthen the state’s economy,” said HudsonAlpha President/Science Director Dr. Rick Myers. “It’s important to have our campus contribute economic value and provide higher-wage jobs in Alabama in an industry that is advancing human healthcare and the sustainability of food and energy resources.”

Windham named COO of HudsonAlpha

Long-time local business and community leader Danny Windham has been named chief operating officer of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

Windham brings more than 20 years of leadership experience to HudsonAlpha, serving as president and COO at Adtran (2005-07) and CEO at Digium (2007-18).

“I have great admiration for the founders and leaders of HudsonAlpha,” said Windham. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to work alongside such a talented team and help ensure the institute’s mission endures for years to come.”

He is involved in the entrepreneurial community — as a mentor and board member — and has supported the development of several startupss.

Windham earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Mississippi State University, where he was named a distinguished engineering Fellow in 2001, and a master’s in business administration from Florida Tech.

“Danny is well-known to the Huntsville research and technology community for his leadership, advocacy and wisdom,” said Dr. Rick Myers, HudsonAlpha president and science director. “We are honored and excited to have him join the HudsonAlpha team.”

Windham also has a strong commitment to giving back to his community. He serves on multiple boards including the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, Biztech and Leadership Alabama. He was also chairman of the Madison YMCA fundraising committee and a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight, a nonprofit organization that provides free air transportation for individuals with any legitimate, charitable, medically related need.

HudsonAlpha mourns passing of co-founder Lonnie McMillian

The team at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology mourns the passing of an inspirational leader, Lonnie McMillian, the co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Institute.

McMillian died Sunday. He was 90.

McMillian was a founder of Adtran, a leading global provider of networking and communications equipment. When he retired from the company in 2001, he worked with longtime friend Jim Hudson to create HudsonAlpha.

The pair set out to develop a unique vision — a nonprofit institute that could combine the power of academic research with the resources of the commercial sector to bring discoveries to market quicker.

Their focus was to deliver better medical care to people everywhere. McMillian and Hudson’s belief in the Institute and their devotion to its success have impacted countless lives the world over, through advancements in diagnosis, treatment and our fundamental understanding of the genome.

“Lonnie was so deeply humble,” Hudson said of his friend, “that not many people have a true scope of how much he gave to the world. The institute is only one example, and I feel blessed for the opportunity to have worked on it with him.

“He will be dearly missed.”

McMillian was a generous philanthropist, and he lived out his commitment to improving the human condition through support of educational, scientific and other charitable causes. Many of his gifts will never be recognized due to his desire for anonymity.

“He was an innovator,” said Dr. Rick Myers, president of HudsonAlpha. “Lonnie was a visionary and a gift to all of us that knew him — and many more who were impacted by his generosity without ever realizing it. We have our work cut out for us to live up to his legacy.”

HudsonAlpha’s Brewer named IAAP Foundation board chair

Stacey Brewer, executive coordinator for Dr. Neil Lamb at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, was recently appointed as board chair for the International Association of Administrative Professionals Foundation. Brewer will serve a two-year term.

“Successful organizations depend on top-tier administrative professionals like Stacey Brewer,” said Lamb. “Admins are arguably the critical ‘connective tissue’ that keep a group informed and on track. Stacey is key to our educational outreach program’s success and I’m appreciative that IAAP has equipped him with relevant and timely professional development tools.

“We’re proud of his work with the Foundation and excited about his appointment as board chair.”

With New Propst Center, HudsonAlpha’s Mission Continues

Carter Wells, executive vice president of economic development, left, and Dr. Rick Myers, president and science director, look over containers filled with more than five million beads representing the number of people who have been touched by HAIB’s education outreach program over the past 10 years. (Photo by Wendy Reeves)

Brightly colored beads in clear containers of various sizes and shapes represent more than 5 million learners who have experienced a HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (HAIB) educational outreach opportunity.

The display covering the past 10 years sits on the second floor of the new Paul Propst Center, which opened in September.

The education team, headed by Dr. Neil Lamb, has reached students, educators, clinical professionals, patients and members of the public who participated in internships, teacher training workshops, public seminars, clinical training and digital downloads for educational games like iCell and Touching Triton, said Carter Wells, HudsonAlpha vice president of economic development.

The display is more than a creative display of numbers as it represents one of the four missions set forth by founders Jim Hudson and Lonnie McMillian before the HAIB opened its doors 10 years ago. It represents how far HAIB has come with the opening of its fourth facility on the campus.

The pair set out to create a center to conduct genomics-based research to improve human health and well being; implement genomic medicine, spark economic development; and provide educational outreach to nurture the next generation of biotech researchers and entrepreneurs, as well as to create a biotech literate public.

The education outreach team has three new learning labs, office and collaboration space spread across two floors in the new facility. Dr. Rick Myers, president and science director at HudsonAlpha, said the new space will allow the education team to increase its teaching opportunities.

Many learners who have experienced HudsonAlpha’s hands-on classroom activities, or participated in summer camps or internship programs are now a part of the HudsonAlpha workforce, or working in life science research institutes or companies across the country.

The Propst Center consists of 105,000 square feet housing about 150 tenants. The new building was funded by a $20 million state grant, and a donation by Huntsville businessman and philanthropist William “Bill” Propst Jr. The building is named for his father, a North Alabama minister.

On the second floor, those small, colorful beads are just one small example of what has transpired at the growing campus during its first 10 years. Those accomplishments lead to the construction of the new Propst Center, which looks and feels similar to the main building, where companies such as Conversant Bio started growing.

The company, which recently merged with four others to become Discovery Life Sciences, provides researchers around the world with hyper-annotated tissue samples in order to conduct informed, cutting edge investigations into many of today’s most problematic diseases.

“There was a lot more open space here when we started, and we started to take small bites of the apple here and there and we finally ran out of space,” said Marshall Schreeder, co-founder of Conversant Bio and vice president of sales and marketing for DLS. “We feel both fortunate to be a part of HudsonAlpha and the Huntsville community. I’m from here and love it here but we could have started our company anywhere.

“What we didn’t realize is how this community would embrace us … and how well this vision would work out.”

Other HudsonAlpha associate companies in the Propst Center include Microarrays, Alimetrix and iRepertoire, along with HudsonAlpha Software Development and Informatics (SDI), which develops software to analyze and interpret genomic and clinical datasets and works to identify and understand the genetic underpinnings of diseases.

“We’re a lot farther along than I ever expected and I’m a fairly optimistic person,” Myers said. “But this synergy that happens here on our campus … we call it our ecosystem with 800 people on our campus, there’s lots of interaction … and I didn’t anticipate how powerful it would be.”

 

 

 

HudsonAlpha Receives $1.29M for Digital Storytelling Tool

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology has received a five-year, $1.29 million grant to develop a story-driven digital learning platform for bioinformatics and infectious disease. The grant comes from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the NIH through the Science Education Partnerships Awards (SEPA).

The program, called “Filtered,” takes students on a journey of discovery as they are charged with researching a pandemic outbreak of a mysterious, fictional infectious disease. They’re asked to use a simulated bioinformatics program to compare genetic sequences of viruses to determine the ancestral origin of this novel and deadly pathogen.

Bioinformatics has been characterized as a “Bright Outlook Occupation” by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, projected to grow much faster than average over the period 2014-2024, with 100,000 or more projected job openings.

“We start with the need,” said Dr. Neil Lamb, vice president for Educational Outreach at HudsonAlpha. “We found … that it’s already a challenge to hire people in the bioinformatics space. It requires such a unique blend of science and computational backgrounds.”

“It’s a fascinating job field and we knew students would be hooked if they got a chance to experience it for themselves.”

Students can interact on a tablet or mobile device and an online version will also be produced.

HudsonAlpha Scientist on Forefront of Addressing Rare Diseases

 

Dr. David Bick named to Alabama Rare Disease Council

Alabama is working to be among the leaders in diagnosing rare diseases and Dr. David Bick of

HudsonAlpha’s Institute for Biotechnology is part of the strategy.

Bick, a clinical geneticist and a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha, sees rare disease patients

at the Smith Family Clinic for Genomic Medicine located on the institute’s Huntsville campus.

Because of his expertise in genomic medicine and more than 20 years of clinical experience

Bick was recently appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the newly created Alabama Rare Disease

Council, established by the Alabama Legislature.

“There are a lot of people in Alabama with rare diseases and our purpose is to help our state’s

leaders address those needs,” Bick says of the 10-member council. “We want to improve the

healthcare of the citizens of our state and our leaders want to get expert advice in thinking

about it.”

He describes it as a diverse council with everyone from healthcare providers to researchers.

“There’s a lot of representation on the council that bring a variety of voices together in a room

if you will. The council is charged with trying to improve our understanding of how to

diagnose and make an impact on these on families dealing with rare diseases.

“If we can collect information on impact and cost and coordinate and collaborate among

different groups as a way to better inform lawmakers about what’s going on we can help

citizens to improve their care and overall health,” he added.

He says the council was established to be a voice for individuals with rare conditions, and

similar council’s are being set up around the country.

It’s also about realization of what genetics testing can provide.

“Being a geneticist, we see people with neurologic or immunologic conditions that while they

may be rare conditions, there are quite a bit (of people) out there with it. There’s a lot of

work being done in Alabama for medicine in general but one thing we tried to emphasize is

rare disease is not so rare,” he says.

For example, he says, Cystic fibrosis affects one in 2,500.

“That doesn’t sound like a very big number but we have all heard of it,” he says. “Take that

across the whole state and it all adds up.”

Another example, he says, is Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a condition that involves spinal cord

cells dying, usually in children but has been seen in adults at about one in 10,000.

“When you add up the numbers, it adds up to big numbers,” Bick says. “If one in 10 Americans

have a rare diseases, that’s about 400,000 in Alabama.”

Patients often arrive a Bick’s office after seeing multiple doctors or specialists who have gone

as far as they can with traditional testing models.

“A neurologist can say to a person who is having trouble walking that their condition has

something with the nerves in the legs,” Bick says. “It may be a peripheral neuropathy and

simple testing shows that but it may be that one of these rare conditions in which the nerves

are not working properly so we do DNA testing and look at the genes to determine the cause.”

For some, there is treatment. For other conditions, there is no treatment but there may be

clinical or pharmaceutical trials in which the patient might be interested in participating in or

following updates.

 Bick says when there are things that are not known from the testing, at least once it is known

what the condition is, the tests show if other family members are at risk for the condition and

if the condition will progress and if so, how it will progress.

 “People want to know what will happen to them, for example, if it’s nerves in the legs, could it

also impact other parts of the body? Sometimes it is yes, there are things we have to watch

out for or it may be simply the current symptoms are the only thing they will experience.

Bick says there is “tons” of research going on around rare genetic conditions for people who

have known conditions.

“We study them because we know how to develop a treatment but if we do not know what a

person has, how can we develop new treatments.”

Genetic testing is for those who have little or no family medical history. It’s also for those who

can’t get a diagnosis no matter how many tests or doctors they see.

The first step for genetic testing is to call to the clinic or get a doctor referral. A patient will

talk with a genetics counselor and if records are available from other doctors that have been

seen, they will be reviewed and costs will be discussed.

“After genome testing has been completed, if we can identify a genetic issue we will open up

lines of communication with the physician about the condition and see if we can further

identify the problem. Meanwhile, the doctor can tailor the patient’s care,” Bick says.

He says that of the 20,000 genes in the human genome, about 4,000 to 5,000 of them have

been connected to specific conditions. The remainder can be identified as doing its job or it’s

never been connected to a medical problem. Although there are hundreds of new conditions

figured out each year.

 “It gets us to lots of conditions already known and lots of others are being discovered,” Bick

says. “Once we’ve sequenced all the genes of a patient, we can go back every year or couple

of years to see if something new has turned up that would show a connection between a

specific gene and genetic condition.”

HudsonAlpha Holds Grand Opening for Paul Propst Center

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology held a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday for the Paul Propst Center, the newest addition to the biotech campus.

The Propst Center, at 800 Genome Way, is made possible by the state of Alabama and community support, including Huntsville philanthropist and businessman William “Bill” Self Propst Sr. The center is named in honor and memory of his father Paul, who was a minister in North Alabama.

“Throughout my career, I have been focused on improving people’s health. My family and I continue to work towards these goals,” said Propst. “I see those working at HudsonAlpha with the same commitment to making life better. We are honored to be able to support HudsonAlpha as they continue to grow and make advancements.”

A number of labs, rooms, spaces and structures in the Propst Center are named in honor of local foundations and supporters who have made gifts to the HudsonAlpha Foundation’s Decade of Discovery: Building for the Future campaign. The campaign allows individuals to financially support the work of the institute with naming opportunities across the campus.

“HudsonAlpha has accomplished so much in the only ten years, all of which would not have been possible without the support our community,” said Jim Hudson, HudsonAlpha co-founder. “Cutting the ribbon today on the Paul Propst Center was a special moment not only for me, but all of us at HudsonAlpha and in Huntsville.”

Similar in look and feel to the flagship building at 601 Genome Way, the Propst Center will house components of HudsonAlpha’s education and research programs, and growing biotech companies. Extra details in design – glass walls, common sidewalks, a grand staircase – create a “team science” environment and contribute to the culture of collaboration.

“The vision of the institute’s founders is to see discoveries and advancements quickly occur with research and business working together,” said Carter Wells, HudsonAlpha vice president for economic development. “Today, we celebrate not just the continuation but a strengthening of the culture of collaboration and innovation created 10 years ago.”

The two-story, 105,000 square-foot building includes state-of-the-art laboratories built to National Institutes of Health standards for biosafety, with more than 47,000 square feet available for expanding biotech companies, and turnkey office and lab space for biotech companies interested in joining HudsonAlpha’s campus.

Several companies have already expanded into the Propst Center from HudsonAlpha’s flagship building, some doubling their previous footprint. The HudsonAlpha associate companies that will be the initial tenants of the Propst Center are Folio Conversant, Microarrays, Alimetrix and iRepertoire.

“We came to HudsonAlpha with just a few people and an idea,” said Marshall Schreeder Jr., co-founder and CEO of Conversant Bio, now Folio Conversant. “And now we’ve grown to ten times the number of employees and merged with another company.

“Being on the HudsonAlpha campus not only puts us at the center of innovation and collaboration, but we also have room to grow.”

In addition, the Propst Center has three education labs where the HudsonAlpha Educational Outreach team will provide hands-on laboratory experiences for students and inspire the next generation of scientists. HudsonAlpha’s education programs have reached more than 5 million learners in just 10 years and have a proven track record of workforce development success.

Many students who experienced HudsonAlpha’s hands-on classroom activities, or participated in summer camps or internship programs are now a part of the HudsonAlpha workforce, or working in life science research institutes or companies across the country.

“I remember when our first building was under construction and even then, I knew HudsonAlpha was going to be something special,” said Dr. Neil Lamb, vice president for Educational Outreach. “What started as one building has grown to a premier biotech campus. I can’t think of a better place to grow one’s passion for learning and train the scientists of the future.”

“This was an exciting day for both HudsonAlpha and the city of Huntsville,” said Dr. Rick Myers, president and science director at HudsonAlpha. “By growing our campus and opening the Paul Propst Center, we can continue to impact a community that has shown us a tremendous amount of support throughout the years.”

For information, visit hudsonalpha.org/800.